The Multilateralist

Benghazi: massacre averted or hyperbole?

Benghazi: massacre averted or hyperbole?

Last week, I questioned Steve Walt’s assertion that there probably wasn’t going to be a large-scale massacre in Benghazi if Gaddafi’s forces had taken the city. He responds here:

To be clear, I do think rebel lives would have been lost had Qaddafi’s force taken Benghazi, and I have no doubt that the Libyan dictator would have dealt harshly with the rebel leaders and anyone who fought to the bitter end. In other words, I’m pretty sure his forces would have murdered some of the rebels and probably some innocent civilians too.  But the president seems to have been convinced that Qaddafi was about to unleash genuine mass killings of perhaps as many as 100,000 people, in a city of roughly 650,000 (remember his pointed reference to Benghazi being nearly the size of Charlotte?). Thus, the president’s rhetoric strongly implied that tens of thousands of innocent bystanders were about to be ruthlessly slaughtered. That same image was reinforced by media references to the "lessons of Rwanda" that supposedly had shaped the views of some of Obama’s advisors.

Yet as I noted in my piece, there were no large-scale massacres in the other cities that the loyalists had recaptured. It is easy to believe that Qaddafi would have gone after the rebel leaders and diehard followers — whom he undoubtedly regards as traitors — but turning Benghazi into a ghost town filled with corpses was probably not in his own interest.

I asked Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch for a reaction to the Benghazi revisionism. Here’s his response:

All we have and ever will have is the evidence of Qaddafi’s past behavior, before the decision was made, as well as the threats he was making.  And that gave rise, we think, to legitimate concerns about what might happen — including arrests and killings of opposition supporters — had he taken Benghazi and the other towns and cities east of Benghazi where large numbers of people rose up against him, or defected from his ranks. I also think that as a practical matter it would have been extremely hard for him to reestablish his authority in the east without large scale repression (given the size of the rebellious population relative to the number of security forces Qaddafi could have deployed there permanently).

It’s quite clear that this debate will never be settled. But the back-and-forth does point to the difficulty of making preemptive humanitarian into a doctrine or consistent policy: successful prevention is rarely seen as an overall success and may make intervention the next time around that much more difficult.